It’s a year tomorrow that I started reading Don Juan, and I finished it today. I’ve struggled with it as times (1, 2) and been enchanted at times (3) which is a good summary of the book as a whole. The Wikipedia summary looks good, as is the introduction to the Riverside Edition that I read. I’m very glad I read it, maybe a break before I start on some Pope!
Byron wrote the novel in part to shake off the popular image of him as his Childe Harold, from his earlier epic poem. Byron’s Don Juan isn’t the libertine and seducer of legend, but is himself seduced and his story follows his path between six women: Donna Julia (who seduces him rather outrageously), Haidée (innocent young love), Gulbeyaz (who buys him for her harem but he resists her and falls for one of her maids, Dudu, instead), then as he grows more worldy wise (blame that on the harem) he becomes one of Catherine the Great’s lovers, before coming to England as an observer of the social mores of the time and double standards, finally in Canto 17 having a two-stanza fling with the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. Byron died of a fever part way through Canto 17 so we won’t know where the night of passion led to (she was dressed up as the ghost of a monk, so that’s far from conventional).
The most difficult part of the book is the dreary Russian siege of Ismail in 1790 in Cantos 6–8. There are quite a few other digressions, some of which are great and others lost me quite effectively. I kept a note of some of the fantastic stanzas: The description of Don Juan’s parents I’ve already written about (from the First Canto),
From the Second Canto (LXXV–LXXVII and further) where, shipwrecked, Don Juan and his shipmates have to resort to cannibalism is amusingly written:
The lots were made, and mark’d, and mix’d, and handed,
In silent horror, and their distribution
Lull’d even the savage hunger which demanded,
Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution;
None in particular had sought or plann’d it,
‘T was nature gnaw’d them to this resolution,
By which none were permitted to be neuter–
And the lot fell on Juan’s luckless tutor.
He but requested to be bled to death:
The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebb’d his breath,
You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
Like most in the belief in which they ‘re bred,
And first a little crucifix he kiss’d,
And then held out his jugular and wrist.
The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
Preferr’d a draught from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,
And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who follow’d o’er the billow–
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.
The sailors ate him, all save three or four,
Who were not quite so fond of animal food;
To these was added Juan, who, before
Refusing his own spaniel, hardly could
Feel now his appetite increased much more;
‘T was not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.
The shipwreck leads to Don Juan being the only survivor and being found by Haidée on a beach. The next quote from Canto 5 (LXIII–LXXV) is when Don Juan has been sold into salvery and bought by a seemingly very rich man for a mysterious purpose—
Baba eyed Juan, and said, ‘Be so good
As dress yourself-‘ and pointed out a suit
In which a Princess with great pleasure would
Array her limbs; but Juan standing mute,
As not being in a masquerading mood,
Gave it a slight kick with his Christian foot;
And when the old negro told him to ‘Get ready,’
Replied, ‘Old gentleman, I’m not a lady.’
‘What you may be, I neither know nor care,’
Said Baba; ‘but pray do as I desire:
I have no more time nor many words to spare.’
‘At least,’ said Juan, ‘sure I may enquire
The cause of this odd travesty?’–‘Forbear,’
Said Baba, ‘to be curious; ‘t will transpire,
No doubt, in proper place, and time, and season:
I have no authority to tell the reason.’
‘Then if I do,’ said Juan, ‘I’ll be-‘–‘Hold!’
Rejoin’d the negro, ‘pray be not provoking;
This spirit’s well, but it may wax too bold,
And you will find us not too fond of joking.’
‘What, sir!’ said Juan, ‘shall it e’er be told
That I unsex’d my dress?’ But Baba, stroking
The things down, said, ‘Incense me, and I call
Those who will leave you of no sex at all.
The dressing up turned out to be because he was was being prepared to met the great Princess Gulbeyaz whose harem her slave-master Baba had bought him and he was to be sneaked in dressed as a woman so as to be undiscovered by the Prince.
Even in the dreary Canto 8(LXXIII), there were some great atmospheric stanzas about the Ismail siege—
And scrambling round the rampart, these same troops,
After the taking of the ‘Cavalier,’
Just as Koutousow’s most ‘forlorn’ of ‘hopes’
Took like chameleons some slight tinge of fear,
Open’d the gate call’d ‘Kilia,’ to the groups
Of baffled heroes, who stood shyly near,
Sliding knee-deep in lately frozen mud,
Now thaw’d into a marsh of human blood.
Once Don Juan is in England, Byron has a lot to say about English culture and restrictions. Byron had an unhappy marriage (for money) and his thoughts on the marriage game are interesting—
A young unmarried man, with a good name
And fortune, has an awkward part to play;
For good society is but a game,
‘The royal game of Goose,’ as I may say,
Where every body has some separate aim,
An end to answer, or a plan to lay–
The single ladies wishing to be double,
The married ones to save the virgins trouble.
I don’t mean this as general, but particular
Examples may be found of such pursuits:
Though several also keep their perpendicular
Like poplars, with good principles for roots;
Yet many have a method more reticular–
‘Fishers for men,’ like sirens with soft lutes:
For talk six times with the same single lady,
And you may get the wedding dresses ready.
Perhaps you’ll have a letter from the mother,
To say her daughter’s feelings are trepann’d;
Perhaps you ‘ll have a visit from the brother,
All strut, and stays, and whiskers, to demand
What ‘your intentions are?’–One way or other
It seems the virgin’s heart expects your hand:
And between pity for her case and yours,
You’ll add to Matrimony’s list of cures.
I ‘ve known a dozen weddings made even thus,
And some of them high names: I have also known
Young men who–though they hated to discuss
Pretensions which they never dream’d to have shown–
Yet neither frighten’d by a female fuss,
Nor by mustachios moved, were let alone,
And lived, as did the broken-hearted fair,
In happier plight than if they form’d a pair.
Finally, I enjoyed this stanza (Canto 16, XXXIV)
Lord Henry, who had now discuss’d his chocolate,
Also the muffin whereof he complain’d,
Said, Juan had not got his usual look elate,
At which he marvell’d, since it had not rain’d;
Then ask’d her Grace what news were of the duke of late?
Her Grace replied, his Grace was rather pain’d
With some slight, light, hereditary twinges
Of gout, which rusts aristocratic hinges.
Quotes above from Project Gutenberg